Residents unite for Spaghetti Acres neighborhood district

 

Many moons ago, they used to call it Spaghetti Acres; and now they want to make it official.

State Assembly member Adam Gray, Merced Mayor Matt Serratto, Supervisor Josh Pedrozo, members of Merced’s Downtown Neighborhood Association, the Merced Historical Society, and the Italo American Lodge last Saturday invited supporters to a fundraising dinner to benefit new signage for a Spaghetti Acres district in town, as well as an Old Town Merced district.

The dinner was held in the backyard of Gray’s spectacular home along Bear Creek and inside the heart of the Spaghetti Acres neighborhood.

Resident Marc Medefind shared an amazing account of the history of Spaghetti Acres and the effort to honor it with those special guests and donors in attendance.

Here is the text of the presentation:

A few years back, the Downtown Neighborhood Association proposed to the Merced City Council that the Ragsdale area be approved as an Honorary Historic Neighborhood District. The Council agreed. However, paying for signs to place in Ragsdale was a different matter. The association raised funds and soon the signage went up. So, tonight, we’re here on a similar mission to raise funds for signs designating the Spaghetti Acres neighborhood — roughly the are bordered by Bear Creek, R Street and 16th Street — as an Honorary Historic Neighborhood.

The Merced Downtown Neighborhood Association (DNA) is currently in the process of asking the City Council to approve this designation. And, like Ragsdale, this would recognize the historic character of the Spaghetti Acres neighborhood, without placing special land use restrictions, requiring zoning changes, or any special fees of residents.

I want to thank my friend, Mary Ellen Cullen Mazzei, who grew up here, for filling me in on much of the neighborhood’s history. I also pored through “Grazie America!”, the two-volume work, put together by Sarah Lim, that shares the local history of Italian families in their own words.

Mary Ellen is a direct descendent of Spaghetti Acres’ first family. Her grandfather, John Pregno and his brother, Peter, were the first to farm the area near what is now Fremont School. Even today, if you live in Spaghetti Acres, your property tax statement is likely to say “Pregno Estates.” Arriving from Italy’s Asti Piedmont region in 1907, the Pregnos saw the richness of the soil around Bear Creek, settled there, and planted tomatoes.

The brother married sisters Mary and Helen Passarino and built their homes in the area of what is now 20th and T streets. The women also helped with the farming, cutting bamboo and tule reeds along Bear Creek to use as stakes for their tomato plants.

In 1927, the Pregno Brothers helped found the Merced Growers Packing Association that included many more Italian-American families who were attracted to the area to farm the rich soil that for centuries had been deposited by Bear Creek floods. The earliest map of the area shows a dozen farmhouses dotting the future Spaghetti Acres. Over the years, Spaghetti Acres’ residents planted both tomatoes and deep roots.

When the Yosemite Valley railroad built its line and station along R Street in 1907, the area became a world-famous embarkation point. Visitors arrived in Merced to take the 80-mile trip to El Portal that ran mostly along the Merced river.

The station was located at R between 17th and 18th streets (or what is now the Grocery Outlet parking lot.) The railway construction yard and turntable were built where Fremont School is now located, on R Street between 20th and 22nd streets. A rail spur, which allowed trains to change directions, extended to 20th and T where the Pregnos lived.

The rich and famous, including foreign dignitaries and heads of state, rode the rails from Merced to El Portal on their way to Yosemite. These included Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and William Howard taft, Crown Prince Gustaf Adolphus of Sweden, king Albert of Belgium, Sir Winston Churchill and Emperor Hirohito’s brother, Prince Takamatsu.

After the YVRR closed in 1945, Gene Mondo, who founded Mondo Bros. Produce, and was a broker and shipper for local farmers, purchased the YVRR property from R Street to bear Creek. Mondo donated two blocks of this land to the Merced City School District. This became the site for Fremont School. Mondo also developed the Westgate Shopping Center on 17th Street (now Main) between R and T streets, now known as Merced’s first “strip mall.” Gottschalk’s, Newberry’s, the Holland House, Thrifty Drugs and Purity Supermarket were Westgate’s first tenants.

Merced was booming, and farming in the area soon became limited to backyard gardens after the land was subdivided in the 1940s Newly-installed north-south streets S, T, U, V and W were crossed by 18th through 23rd streets, which ran east-west. Patricia Lane was also added to accommodate the geography necessitated by Bear Creek.

Many of the same families that had farmed the land in Spaghetti Acres now chose to live there and their children attended the newly-built John C. Fremont School. By 1958, just half a dozen empty lots were left in the area. Today, the area is filled with neatly-maintained homes of the Minimal Traditional architectural style on broad streets lined with mature Modesto ash trees.

While researching the history of Spaghetti Acres, I realized that R Street, the area’s eastern boundary, also provides a boundary of architectural eras. If you take a stroll between the courthouse and R Street, you’ll see the homes are almost exclusively built in the Craftsman style, the most common American architectural style from the late 19th century through the 1930s. But, from R Street west to Bear Creek, three-quarters of the homes are Minimal Traditionalist, a style that became popular after World War II. These are usually detached single-family house known for their smaller scale, simplicity and minimal decoration.

And here, I’ll again pick up Mary Ellen Cullen Mazzei’s story: Mazzei’s father and uncle, Jim and Tom KiCullen, immigrated from Ireland, changing their name to Cullen when they reached America. They established the Cullen and Cullen General Contracting firm which built most of the homes in Spaghetti Acres. Jim Cullen married Mazzei’s mother, Doris Pregno, and they started their family in the new neighborhood.

Mary Ellen calls Spaghetti Acres: “My history, my heritage.”

“We lived and breathed that area. We had a charmed life growing up there in the 1950s and ’60s,” she said. “We were outside all the time because there were 40 kids living within a four-block radius. We always felt safe. If we needed something, we went to Grandma’s and Grandpa’s. … We just never worried about anything.”

Mazzei noted that everyone’s parents were everyone’s mom and dad in those days.

“I loved playing with my friends, skim-boarding at (Miller) Parkers’ house on Bear Creek, or getting a cookie form Mrs. Puglisevich, who always gave you a cookie, or taking the produce and eggs from my grandparent’s garden to sell in the neighborhood, and especially sitting on the metal glider with my grand mother at her house.”

Such memories certainly provide a good reminder of how “It takes a village to raise a child.” We all mourn the loss of such neighborhoods today. However, historically-designated neighborhoods can provide goal posts for establishing and preserving safe and loving communities once again.

In the book “Gracie, America! From Italy to Merced County,” siblings Ken Testa and Becky Testa Williamson echoed Mazzei’s sentiment when they wrote: “The Testa family in Merced County is rooted in the spirit of Spaghetti Acres, defined not only by its significant historical location, but by the strong foundation of the Testa Family and other proud Italian families who lived there.

“Spaghetti Acres represents a place where strong relationships among family and friends carry on It included rich soil from which families produced many delicious vegetables. It was a special place where many memories were created, from the love of hunting and fishing to the results of shared hard work of the Testas and other Italian families. The Testa family represented deep loyalty to family and friends, which lasted a lifetime and has endured now from generation to generation.

Walking through Spaghetti Acres today can still provide a glimpse of what life was like back when young families moved into their new homes in the 1950s. Today, mature Modesto Ash trees provide bowers over the streets that bisect the area; most homes have been well-maintained, remodeled or updated in style and technology; gardens and lawns are lovingly tended; and, best of all, neighbors still greet one another in a friendly manner. In a word, today’s Spaghetti Acres remains charming.

Thank you for being here tonight to help us preserve the charm of this wonderful neighborhood.

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